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They really just want to be taken seriously

As a director, John “Sully” Sullivan was no stranger to success. His “Ants in Your Plants of 1939" was an enormous comedy hit, and the studio was eager for a follow-up: “Ants in Your Plants of 1940,” anyone? Sullivan, however, had different plans for his next effort. He yearned to travel around America, see the real country, and come back with a hard-hitting picture about big issues called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Sully, as you may remember, is only a figment of Preston Sturges’ imagination, the protagonist of his 1941 film “Sullivan’s Travels,” but his predicament is an ever-recurring one in Hollywood. Comic actors and directors, feeling the desire to be taken more seriously, hanker to try their hand at drama, dreaming Sully Sullivan’s dream of going deeper than laughs -- and not coincidentally, reaping the benefits in increased prestige.

Comedy doesn’t win Oscars. Just ask Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Cary Grant or Jerry Lewis, none of whom ever won competitive Academy Awards. The pull of gravity for comedians dates at least to Chaplin, whose 1921 film “The Kid” offered the promise of “a picture with a smile -- and perhaps, a tear.” The backlash to same is every bit as enduring; it is not just the space aliens from Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” that prefer “the early, funny ones” to the later, artistic experiments.

Now, the latest comedic titan has volunteered to navigate the rocky shoals of drama: Judd Apatow, omnipresent purveyor of raunchy male bonding comedies, is about to release “Funny People” (July 31), a dramedy about an extremely successful comic-turned-movie star (Adam Sandler) who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. He hires an up-and-coming comedian (Seth Rogen) to write jokes for him, and the initial hero worship he receives transmutes into a more complex set of emotions as he deals with his sickness. The film is stocked almost exclusively with stand-up comedians, whose coping mechanism for dealing with painful issues is a certain type of gallows humor. Their response to turmoil -- much like Apatow’s -- is to tell a joke.

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“Dramedy,” that awkward hybrid of a word, is perhaps the wrong description for “Funny People.” It would be more accurate to describe the film as a stand-up drama, whose emotional core is leavened by a steady stream of jokes, asides and routines. Its characters are themselves comedians, more comfortable with laughter than other, less predictable emotions, grounding Apatow’s distinct preference for levity in the sensibilities of its protagonists. It is the kind of film where Sandler’s character, awaiting potentially life-changing news, finds the energy to jest with his Scandinavian doctor that “I keep thinking you’re going to be torturing James Bond later.” In his own fumbling, joshing fashion, though, Apatow is stretching for something just beyond his reach -- something nakedly poignant.

He is hardly the first to feel the tug of the dramatic. Chaplin was in search of respect when he made “The Kid,” no longer interested in settling for being the world’s greatest comedian but seeking the title of world’s foremost tragedian as well.

Later, when Chaplin turned explicitly political with “The Great Dictator,” “Monsieur Verdoux” and “A King in New York,” it stemmed from an overwhelming desire to speak out on the threats posed by fascism and the atomic bomb. Told by film salesmen that his final speech in 1940’s “The Great Dictator -- a humanist plea for peace and internationalism -- would cost him $1 million in box office, Chaplin was unruffled: “I don’t care if it’s 5 million. I’m gonna do it.”

Some comedians’ attempts at drama were doomed from the outset. Lewis’ never-released “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), about a German clown who accompanies a train of Jewish children to the Nazi gas chambers, has achieved a cult notoriety in inverse relation to the number of people who have actually seen the film. Lewis had been accused of mawkishness before, but a Holocaust comedy, with Lewis combating the Nazis with clown routines? The very idea seemed the height of narcissistic chutzpah -- that is, until Italian comedian Roberto Benigni essentially remade the film as “Life Is Beautiful” (1997). Opinions were split on “Life,” with some objecting to Benigni’s exploitation of his material and others saluting his Chaplinesque approach. Either way, the formula was nonrenewable; Robin Williams’ strikingly similar “Jakob the Liar” (1999) was a notorious flop.

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“There’s no question that comedy is harder to do than serious stuff,” Allen said in 1972. “There’s also no question in my mind that comedy is less valuable than serious stuff.” He was filming “Sleeper,” one of the most successful of his freewheeling early comedies, but Allen was already growing restless. Bob Hope had been the primary influence on early efforts such as “Sleeper” and “Bananas,” but Ingmar Bergman now beckoned. “Annie Hall” (1977), which won best picture, was Allen’s triumphant first attempt at mingling comedy and drama, but its follow-up, “Interiors” (1978), was straight Bergman: morose, moody and intense. Allen would return, every few years, to unadorned dramas, but even his comedy work had been affected: Never again would he make comedies as weightless as those first few. Space aliens and other Allen buffs would see fit to complain.

Recent years have seen yet more prominent comedians insistent on stretching into drama. Some, like Tom Hanks and Jamie Foxx, have managed to escape comedy entirely and recast themselves as dramatic actors. Others have found only moderate success. Jim Carrey played a genial buffoon unaware of his own television-mediated existence in “The Truman Show” (1998) and offered a somber Andy Kaufman for Milos Forman’s “Man on the Moon” (1999). Both were modest successes, with Carrey translating his genial zaniness into dramatic roles demanding a certain unhinged vigor. Will Ferrell turned in a surprisingly deft performance in “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006) as an IRS agent who belatedly discovers he is a character in a novelist’s new book. Ferrell’s range, like Carrey’s, is limited, their yen for drama constrained by their own talents and the preferences of their audience. Given the choice, most moviegoers would probably prefer to see Ferrell in “Old School 2" or Carrey revisiting Ace Ventura, than to watch them mope on-screen.

For advice and perhaps a word of caution, Apatow would have had to look no further than the end of his lens. Sandler, perhaps the pre-eminent comic star of the last decade, has been down this road before. In three prior dramatic experiments, he ran the gamut of potential responses: “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) was an unqualified critical success, “Reign Over Me” (2007) a qualified one, and James L. Brooks’ “Spanglish” (2004) generally considered a well-intentioned calamity. None had had even a fraction of the box-office impact of any of Sandler’s straightforward comedies. Like Carrey and Ferrell, Sandler is not a dramatic natural, but his serious outings -- “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Funny People” in particular -- have had the benefit of being honed to suit his bratty, shambling persona.

“Funny People” is simultaneously a comedy wrestling with serious issues and a film whose characters are comedians struggling with problems far beyond the ken of their stand-up. As such, it marks a turning point in the evolution of this now-80-plus-year-old trend: the self-aware stab at drama. “I’m trying to make a very serious movie that is twice as funny as my other movies,” Apatow has said of his film. “Wish me luck.”

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calendar@latimes.com


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